Burke & WillisRobert O’Hara Burke had a number of things going for him. He was Anglo-Irish gentry; he had been in the Austrian military; he had lived in Victoria for eight years. He was “tall, well made, with dark brown hair… a magnificent beard; he had fine, intelligent eyes, and a splendidly-formed head.” If you were looking for the right person to lead a dangerous, logistically-complex, and physically demanding expedition across Australia from south to north, what more could you ask for? Qualifications, character, suitability, perhaps? Let’s not be petty. We don’t expect that in astronauts or presidents, why explorers?

The whole thing started with another Irishman by the name of Ambrose Kyte who came to Melbourne as a young man “humble and objectless.” He did very well for himself in land speculation, and decided to offer a thousand pounds to help finance an expedition into the interior. The Philosophical Institute of Victoria agreed to raise the rest of the money, select the leader and outfit the expedition.

Camels had recently been introduced into the American west, and it was decided that ‘ships of the desert’ would be ideal for crossing the Australian Sahara, so camels were imported. The disaster in the making was assembled in Royal Park, home of the Melbourne zoo. It is adjacent to University College, our first home base in Melbourne.
The purpose of the expedition was exploratory, scientific and a little vague. Burke and young Wills (the surveyor of the company) were to attempt to explore the country between Cooper’s Creek and the Gulf of Carpenteria (keeping an eye out for another explorer by the name of Leichhardt who had gone missing in 1848.) They were to cross 1700 miles of extremely inhospitable territory. And come home again.


Royal Park was then on the outskirts of Melbourne, “practically in a state of nature.” Burke hoped that it would help accustom his men to bush life. The nineteen men had relatively modest provisions for a journey that could take two years. They were well supplied with equipment, however, which included an oak table. Their goods weighed at least 21 tons.

On August 20, the explorers headed out in some disarray, providing live entertainment to thousands of spectators from the City. Their first stop was at Queen’s Park in Essendon, a five minute walk from our front door. One of the wagons broke down on the way and at dusk a horse broke loose and ran away. It was an omen of things to come.

It was a long, arduous, and ultimately disastrous journey. After making a series of terrible decisions, Burke left Cooper’s creek in central Australia at the hottest time of the year with three companions, six camels and one horse. Only one man made it back alive.

There is a very good account of the expedition on the Wikepedia site as well as at: burkeandwills.net. A re-enactment of the tragic tale was made in 1985. The scenery is stunning.